Mac Flecknoe by John Dryden
“Mac Flecknoe” is one of the most well-known mock-heroic verses in English literature. In it, Dryden challenges his former friend Thomas Shadwell for claiming to be the true heir of Richard Flecknoe, a recently deceased dramatist and poet whom Dryden portrays as having long ruled “Through all the realms of Nonsense”. The poem, written in heroic couplets (iambic pentameter couplets), invokes classical personalities, such as Augustus in line 3, and forms in order to parody Shadwell’s creative pretensions. Dryden’s animosity with Shadwell sprang from a number of issues, including the fact that Dryden was a Catholic Tory and Shadwell was a Protestant Whig.
The poem opens with a typical couplet about everything in human existence deteriorating, including kings’ lives. The poem praises Flecknoe as “blest with issue of a large increase” after mockingly comparing him to the Roman emperor Augustus (8). Literally, the sentence implies that he has many children, but it also implies that he has many followers in “prose and verse” (5) and in the “realms of Nonsense” (6), implying that many other writers have strived to be as nonsensical as he has been. “Worn out with business,” Flecknoe now proceeds to determining “which of all his sons was fit /To reign, and wage immortal war with wit” (9). (11 and 12). Dryden utilises the conceit of a king’s succession, which was hugely important at the time, to mock Flecknoe and his successors who wage war against wit—the neoclassical phrase for good reason, decorum, and correct imagination. At this point, the mock-Flecknoe speaks up, declaring that only he “who most resembles me” (14)—only the poet who lacks sense as much as he does—should take his place. Despite the poem’s subject, “A Satire on the True-Blue Protestant Poet T.S.,” the lines that follow allude to Shadwell as being “Mature in dullness” (16) and “confirmed in full stupidity” (18).
Using the figure of light to speak of intellectual and rational insight—the figure that would give the coming period, the Enlightenment, its name—Dryden (via Flecknoe) insists that no such light ever breaks upon Shadwell: no “beams” (21) of intelligence “strike through” (22), because Shadwell’s “genuine night admits no ray” (23) and instead “His rising fogs prevail upon the day” (24). Even the light of day is obscured by Shadwell’s obscurity.
Following the attack on Shadwell’s intellect, the poem shifts to his massive body, i.e., “his goodly fabric” (25), contrasting its “thoughtless” nature to that of a dumb “oak” (27). Flecknoe then goes on to say that Shadwell surpasses him so far that he has simply come (like John the Baptist preceded Jesus) “to prepare thy way” (32). The lines that follow paint a picture of Shadwell ascending the Thames to accept his kingship, referencing to a number of Shadwell’s works along the way and mocking his versification, particularly the use of poetic feet and rhyme (54). Flecknoe’s discourse concludes with the poetic voice concluding that everything, particularly Shadwell’s plays, indicates to his being “made” for “anointed dullness,” i.e., to be crowned as stupid or insipid.
The poem’s mock-heroic quality of reducing Shadwell by ironically comparing him with greatness continues in the next lines, which characterise Shadwell’s dominion over the city of Augusta (London). Dryden establishes his rule in a brothel neighbourhood, equating prostitution with the low theatre associated with Shadwell’s plays (64–93). With his coronation, the streets are paved with “scattered limbs of mangled poets” (99) and their writings, implying that Shadwell’s reign is dependent on the annihilation of pure poetry. Shadwell ascends to the throne, swearing to “preserve” “true dullness” (115) and to wage war “with wit and sense” forever (117). Dryden returns to his mock-heroic framework at this juncture, reverting to the reference to Rome in his opening lines. According to folklore, twelve owls—symbols of gloom and imbecility—flew from Shadwell’s “left hand” (129) as he began his rule. The metaphor is a mockery of Romulus’ creation of Rome after seeing twelve vultures or crows. Flecknoe then speaks again, pleading with god to bless his “son” as he advances “in new impudence, new ignorance” (146). He counsels Shadwell, encouraging him to ensure that all of his “issue” (160), i.e., his writings, are entirely his own. He should rely on his innate talents, as said in line 166, and he will be able to compose poem like his father: “Like mine, they gentle numbers feebly creep” (197). Flecknoe appears to change his mind at the conclusion, telling Shadwell to cease producing plays (205) and instead settle for inferior kinds of poetry such as acrostics. Flecknoe then vanishes through a trap-door, his monarchical garments flying up and resting over their rightful heir.
While “Mac Flecknoe” is replete of explicit allusions to the 1670s literary environment, its broader theme should be clear to most attentive readers. It is a nasty, albeit well-crafted, attack on a literary foe, showcasing Dryden’s skills and talents at their most acute. It exemplifies one of the many distinct applications of poetry during the period, in this case the game of reputation, implying the junction of lyrical quarrels with theological and political quarrels. Given Dryden’s current status as the most prominent literary character of the age, it may appear unusual that he would heap such scorn on someone who is barely mentioned in most literary histories. However, while Dryden is remembered as the victor of this dispute (Shadwell is only known now because of this poem), Shadwell was the more immediate victor. With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament toppled James II, and Dryden was replaced as poet laureate by Shadwell. Furthermore, while Dryden’s criticism may appear personal and parochial, he employs satire to make a larger argument about the significance of good taste and lyrical genius to the nation through his portrayal of Flecknoe and Shadwell as emperors. From this vantage point, Shadwell’s dullness has the potential to weaken the nation and undermine its good sense.